Film 150 | The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

When I first watched Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western masterpiece five or maybe six years ago; I loved the use of Ennio Morricone’s famous score, snatches of the haunting melody playing at various points in anticipation of that finale in Sad Hill Cemetery; I loved seeing more of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, two of my favourite actors; I was captivated and moved by Eli Wallach’s turn as “The Ugly” and blown-away by the final sequence as out trio of treasure hunters collide in the cemetery. The film is a masterpiece cumulating in one of cinema’s most famous stand-offs: a three way often paid homage to by the likes of Tarantino, a scene which is a wonderfully crafted and edited exercise of slow-build tension and suspense. Throughout the cinematography is starkly beautiful and I can’t imagine how vast and wondrous the landscapes look on a full cinema screen.

But, I preferred this trilogy’s second outing, For a Few Dollars More. The main reason was the story seemed tighter, less rambling and less full of coincidence – see how often TGTB&TU’s civil war saves Eastwood’s “Blondie” character for example; and the sequence near the end when Eastwood and Tuco (The Ugly) have to cross a bridge being fought over by both sides in the war felt like nothing more than being another way of delaying the finale in the cemetery and extending the already long running time.
Having rewatched it as my final film in this project I see how I couldn’t cut a second; everything is essential. Without the sequence over the bridge, the lucky escapes the civil war provides Blondie would have stuck out more as the Ex-Machina’s they are; and it all goes towards the large scale world-building of the piece, just as much as the panoramic vista’s of desert and small towns fighting a losing battle with the wind, dirt and dust. It makes the setting lived in, out three leads aren’t playing their chess-game of cross and double-cross against each other in isolation. This is really grand scale, epic film-making.

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Film 149 | Serenity

SerenitySerenity

For a while this was a favourite film of mine. It was my first introduction to the universe Joss Whedon had created in the horrifically cancelled too soon TV series Firefly and I loved it the first time I saw it. I saw it at least once more in the cinema, and was disappointed I didn’t get to see it more and I spent an afternoon trudging round the shops in town trying to find Firefly on DVD to no avail. After seeing Serenity, I HAD to see the series.
When both film and series became widely available on DVD I gave friends one or the other as Christmas and Birthday presents I was just so enthralled by and passionate about the characters, the dialogue, the stories and the universe.

Being honest, I probably watched Serenity so much I got a little bored by it. Okay, bored might not be the right word: Frustrated maybe, but that still doesn’t seem right. As a goodbye to the series it is imperfect: The plot is a all-action conspiracy thriller with universe wide implications and that doesn’t fit entirely well with the tone of the series; it feels a little like a forced short-hand for where five or seven years of the series might have gone; one main character from the show is barely in Serenity and the fate of the characters…it’s hard to discuss without spoilers but it robs us of one of the most intriguing plots that would have carried the show forward (and could have been continued in other media) and the fate of another, for the huge shock moment it provides does seem a little needlessly cruel.
I think also, taken as a standalone film it does take a little while to go anywhere.

So, for a long time if I revisited the universe at all it was through the Firefly series and as a result, given the space of years to come back to Serenity afresh, I really enjoyed it, start to finish. The things that made me fall I love with the project in the first place are still there: the superior blend of sci-fi, western, comedy and action; with strong and distinct characters, snappy dialogue (it is Joss after-all) and good performances.

I’m not sure if it is the ideal jumping on point for the new viewer (amongst internet geeks in 2016 how many can actually be out there); I suppose it’s a good two-hour taster of what the series can offer, with the blockbuster action ramped up a little although on the flip-side the emotional investment in the characters hasn’t been built up as much and you won’t have been hooked in by the shows charm.

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Film 148 | South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

South ParkSouth Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

I’ve talked before in this blog about how this was a formative film for me and a couple of friends growing up; often rewatched, always trying to view it when parents weren’t around due to the huge amount of profanity

For me, it’s what a film version of a television show should be: more of the same but bigger (Longer & Uncut…) in scale. Like the best episodes of the series there is an intelligent point to be made:the main theme here is a warning against censorship and this cautionary advice is handled in the most South Park-way possible – with a massive amount of swearing and violence (apparently logged at 399 swear words, 199 offensive gestures and 221 acts of violence.) It’s exactly the formula that made South Park such a late nineties phenomenon in the first place and why it can still hugely entertain to this day: it can provide smart satire and pop culture commentary hidden behind crude and juvenile humour.

Watching it for the first time in a long time I was amazed at how quickly the lyrics to the songs came back and how catchy they were, and like during my rewatch of Beavis & Butt-Head Do America I was quoting the film before the lines came up.

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Film 147 | Dredd 3D

Dredd 3dDredd 3D

There is an essay to be written in how not to market and distribute a film with Dredd 3D as the central case-study but this isn’t the place. Here let us run through the basics:

Firstly, there’s the title: Adding 3D to the end of a film title promotes negative images of lousy low budget horror films or straight-to-DVD-Bait (see Piranha 3D, My Bloody Valentine 3D, Shark Night 3D) and 3D simply isn’t the preferred viewing choice for a sizeable portion of viewers: to name but a few concerns there is the raft of films that have been shot in 2D and then had short and sometimes shoddy 3D sequences tacked on afterwards, complaints about extra cost, the headaches some people experience while watching 3D films and the wearing of those silly glasses. To compound the error in the film’s title, 3D was the only available way to experience Dredd in most cinemas as the 2D print only received a very limited release.
The trailers were forgettable and probably only registered with fans of the comic who would have been going anyway. To the typical cinemagoer Dredd 3D looked like a run-of-the-mill action film at best and the posters did nothing to alleviate that fear. Nothing was done to make Dredd 3D stand out in any way at all from any other forgettable ten-a-penny action flick.
Meanwhile in America, where Judge Dredd isn’t so well known of a comic character not enough was done in America to distinguish this update from the wretched Sylvester Stallone train-wreck of 1994. Audiences state-side simply saw a remake of a film they never wanted to see again; not that this was a wholly different (and much more comic-accurate) interpretation of a British pop-culture character.

In short, Dredd 3D was hamstrung and placed in a no-win situation before it even got started. The film under-performed at the international box office despite critical praise and a strong word-of mouth following from those who actually saw it.

Writer Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine and writer/director of Ex Machina) planned Dredd 3D as the first of a trilogy and as such gives it a simple plot with the intention of expanding the scope of the series in the sequels: A crime villain, Ma-Ma (Game of Thrones star Lena Headey) controls the 200 storey Peach Trees tower-block. When she has three rivals killed, Dredd and rookie psychic Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) go in to investigate. Ma-Ma has Peach Trees locked down, leaving the Judge’s no choice but to fight to the top of the tower and take Ma-Ma out.

The story shares many a similarity with Indonesian martial arts runaway success The Raid (a innocent by-product of both films being developed more-or-less simultaneously at different sides of the planet; but again an issue not helped by the marketing campaign) but while The Raid’s police men took down bad-guys with furiously high-octane martial arts, Dredd takes down his perps with a gun and a lot of ammo. It is possible that the mega violence put off some potential viewers and Dredd 3D is certainly mega violent but it is also visually quite beautifully striking in places. Ma-Ma’s gang sells Slo-Mo a drug which allows its users to perceive time as running 1% normal speed and these sequences are particularly eye-catching.

Karl Urban is a perfect Dredd (and one that correctly doesn’t remove his helmet) it’s hard to imagine any other actor being able to draw you into a performance of such a two dimensional emotionless, almost robotic character when you only ever see his chin; Thirlby, Headey and The Wire‘s Wood Harris all deliver in their roles as does a just-before-he-made-it-big Domnhall Gleeson as Ma-Ma’s victimised technical wizard.

The second film would have been on a much bigger scale: the famous Cursed Earth story-line, once held as one of comic Dredd’s finest arcs. It’s a shame the poor promotion of Dredd 3D killed off the franchise before it ever got started – although like many previous ‘cult’ hits it has sold well on DVD and Blu-Ray, keeping hope of a sequel, however slim, tantalisingly alive.

Even if this is all there is (and it almost certainly is all there is), Dredd 3D delivers on grim, brutal dystopian yet stylish action in a way we haven’t seen since the eighties.

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Films 145 & 146 | Sweeney Todd & Dogma

Sweeney ToddSweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I was terribly sad to hear about the passing of Alan Rickman. He was a wonderful talent and a favourite actor of mine. If a film didn’t interest me much his presence amongst the cast made me far more likely to consider seeing it.

On the day of the news of his death I thought it best to watch some of his performances. Of course, I’d already watched Die Hard as part of this blog, so I choose two other films to watch and celebrate the life of a unique talent.

I’ve grown tired of the Tim Burton directs Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter formula but I recalled this being one of my favourite examples of that. I recalled a fairly gripping plot, some fun songs, great visuals and good performances. All of those were present on the rewatch but I wasn’t as gripped by it, it’s actually a quite straightforward story and once told it loses some of its capacity to entertain.

As for Alan Rickman here he possesses a sort of leery menace and to say he’s the principal villain he’s not actually involved much but as ever is hugely watchable in what screentime he does have.
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DogmaDogma

And I followed Sweeney Todd up with Kevin Smith’s ensemble religious comedy/fantasy Dogma, where Rickman plays the voice of God, because no one else possibly could have.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are terrific fun as the fallen angels Bartleby and Loki who hatch upon a plan to become human, be forgiven of their sins and thus re-enter Heaven when they die; only doing so will prove God to not be infallible and this will undo all of creation. Linda Fiorentino plays the lapsed Catholic charged with stopping them, joined by a rag-tag bunch of characters that includes Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, Alan Rickman and Kevin Smith regular characters Jay and Silent Bob played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself.

There are plenty of one-line gags and quick verbal swordplay that are constants in Smith’s work, as well as the juvenile humour that sometimes reaches too low.

Dogma courted controversy upon its release and at a shallow glance that’s understandable but actually Dogma treats just about all Catholic doctrine as hard fact; and some other material seems to be included only to raise the ire of hardcore faithful and thus gain attention to the film in the first place. Childish, maybe, but effective.

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Film 144 | Throne of Blood

Throne of Blood

Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth shifts the basic plot to feudal Japan where General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) persuaded to follow his military ambitions by his scheming wife (Isuzu Yamada).

Kurosawa infuses his adaptation of one of the most famous western plays with elements of traditional Japanese theatre; Noh drama, for example in the mask-like make-up of Lady Washizu and the formalised body movements; while he never uses a close-up shot to give the impression of watching actors at distance, as if watching a stage.

Known for giving his samurai epics epic running times, Kurosawa keeps Throne of Blood to a very trim and pacey 104 minutes, stripping the story down to its bare elements and not allowing familiarity to breed contempt. He does have time for some excellent set-pieces though: the blood-soaked room, the birds that swarm the castle and Washizu’s ultimate, brutal demise.

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Film 143 | Touch of Evil

Touch of EvilTouch of Evil

Touch of Evil is Orson Welles’ much praised 1958 crime-noir, directed by, written by and co-starring the man himself, loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson.

It’s widely considered to be one of Welles’ best films and on first impressions I can see why. It opens with a masterful, and hugely influential thee-minute twenty-second opening tracking shot that follows a car meandering its way through the streets of a town on the U.S-Mexico border. We know the car has a bomb in it, and two of our leads, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, playing newlyweds, encounter the doomed car several times as they walk on foot.
Later, there is a wonderfully choreographed one-take interrogation of the main suspect to the bombing and the finale, played out around (and in) a river-bridge at night is also excellently blocked, directed and edited.

And the performances are actually quite good, especially from Charlton Heston (even if him playing a Mexican is ridiculous) and Janet Leigh, even if Welles’ choice of voice takes a little getting used to

But every now and again you watch a film with some merit which has received lasting critical acclaim and you just don’t see why. And so it is with me and Touch of Evil. For all the technical prowess and thee brilliantly composed scenes I was bored rigid for large chunks (in fact by everything else), the poor sound recording makes large sections of dialogue almost incomprehensible (exacerbated by Welles choice of accent) and enjoyment and understanding aren’t aided by the black-and-white visuals being so dark its often takes time to work out just what characters are even talking. The effect makes Marlon Brando monologuing in shadow in Apocalypse Now seem sun-stroked and practically seizure inducing by comparison. You can follow what was happening; but aside from appreciating the technical achievement (especially for the time) of some of what I was seeing I just couldn’t relate to or enjoy any of it.

 

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